The election is Nicola Sturgeon's to lose
The spring conference season has come and gone, the battle lines have been drawn and we now have a pretty good idea as to how Scotland’s main political parties will approach the upcoming election.
The fact Nicola Sturgeon felt the need to use her keynote address in Glasgow to announce the SNP, a party whose constitution demands the pursuit of an independent Scotland, will refresh its constitutional offer in the summer was in itself quite revealing.
After the publication of challenging economic figures (GERS), the First Minister recognises a growing unease in the party masses at the lack of offering a clear independence message. Ms Sturgeon, therefore, moved tactically to shore up the very voters whose engagement and enthusiasm in 2014 brought the party its subsequent and unprecedented level of success.
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This will, of course, have been music to Ruth Davidson’s ears. A key plank of the effervescent Conservative leader’s pitch is to espouse an end to the ‘uncertainty’ she argues the prospect of a second independence ballot will bring. Simple yet shrewd, she hopes to maximise the Tory vote from the 55 per cent who voted No and in doing so achieve her stated aim of coming second.
The difficulty with this, of course, is the Westminster end of Ms Davidson’s unionist bargain isn’t holding firm. Iain Duncan Smith’s shock resignation over “draconian” welfare cuts has engulfed the Tories in a civil war as we approach yet another referendum a few weeks after 5 May. Arguing for constitutional stability whilst your party colleagues down the road are simultaneously kicking proverbial lumps out of each other over EU membership is not an easy sell.
Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, on the other hand, will not seek to dwell on the independence question at all. She knows only too well many of her party’s followers converted to the ‘Yes’ proposition.
Instead, her platform will be a continued assault on what she argues is the SNP’s woeful record in government.
Sensing a lack of ambition on the part of the Government as regards its council tax reforms, intriguingly she has sought to fill the vacuum by aping the SNP’s 2007 pledge to scrap the ‘unfair’ levy altogether and replace it with a remarkably similar plan based on property value but calling it the ‘fair property tax’.
Ms Dugdale will also repeatedly claim, as she did at the recent Labour get together, that the First Minister and her party have become arrogant to the point of complacency, hoping to tap into the Scottish affinity with the plucky underdog.
This is uncharted territory for the SNP – never before have they been such overwhelming favourites to win an election. Even the 2015 General Election landslide was preceded with anxiety as to whether the post-referendum surge would be translated into votes in the ballot box.
Because, make no mistake, this contest is Nicola Sturgeon’s to lose. Anything other than a repeat or an improvement of the surprising 2011 victory will be regarded as a failure, so the stakes are high.
The SNP needs to communicate an effective strategy that keeps fire in the bellies of activists and avoids voter apathy akin to the ‘Blair third-term effect’ – ‘I’ll probably vote for you but I’m not sure exactly why.’ Rousing the activist base whilst not scaring away centre-ground voters is probably, therefore, Ms Sturgeon’s biggest challenge in this election.
Her personal approval ratings remain sky high. Add in a stout defence of her party’s nine years in office and one or two flagship policies and the pitch will be a First Minister seeking a mandate to stamp her own character on the next Holyrood administration. It’s a refreshed version of the ‘record, team and vision’ mantra that served the SNP so well five years ago.
The question is – will it be as successful?